Domestication of the cat can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians, some 7,000-4,000 years ago. The distinctive up right, long-legged posture of sitting cats in Egyptian paintings suggests it was the African version of the wildcat that gave rise to today's domestic tabby. Wildcats were undoubtedly attracted to the granaries and fields of early settlement, where they performed a valuable service preying on rodents and would have grown used to human contact. African, Asian, and old Germanic tribes have also revered the cat. Mohammed called the cat his favorite animal, and the keeping of domestic cats spread across Africa and Asia with the spread of Islam.
Human fear and persecution of cats no doubt dates back to the prehistoric days of the saber-toothed tiger, which appears in cave paintings dating back tens of thousands of years. Our modern species of big cat still engender fear among com munities living close by, with some justification—tigers, lions, and leopards have all been recorded as human-eaters. Human casualties are generally the result of accidental confrontations, or involve injured or sick animals, but in the Sun-derbans swamps of India tigers have learned that fishermen and wood gatherers make easy prey, and several dozen people may fall victim in a single year.
A much more widespread cause of conflict with humans is predation on livestock. Although predation rates are usually fairly low, losses may be important to individual owners, especially in developing countries. Conservationists are looking at measures including culling of problem animals, improved anti-predator stock management, and paying compensation for lost livestock, to discourage large scale persecution of cats by farmers.
Cat pelts have been a symbol of status and power in cultures both ancient and modern. While international trade in the fur of endangered species has been reduced to relatively insignificant levels, domestic trade persists in some countries. Unlike animals such as fox or mink, cats killed for fur are entirely caught in the wild, and pelts are of high value compared with other species. Some conservationists have suggested that controlled harvesting, generating relatively high revenues from low level culling, could be one way of encouraging sustainable exploitation of cats.
Larger cat species have an economic value in attracting tourists to national and private reserves in Africa and India. Trophy hunting under quota is carried on in a number of African countries. In Botswana, selective hunting of "trophy" lions, usually by dominant males, is alleged to have caused social imbalance and inbreeding among prides. There has also been controversy in South Africa over "canned lion" hunts, where captive-bred lions habituated to people are "hunted" in enclosures or immediately after release.
1. Leopard (Panthera pardus); 2. Lion (Panthera leo); 3. Clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa); 4. Caracal (Caracal [Felis] caracal); 5. Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus); 6. Jaguar (Panthera onca); 7. Snow leopard (Uncia [Panthera] uncia); 8. Tiger (Panthera tigris). (Illustration by Marguette Dongvillo)
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